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July 15, 2008

Ernie Els


BERNIE McGUIRE: Ernie, thanks so much for joining us, former Open Champion. Welcome to Royal Birkdale. You've played the course. Perhaps you can give us your thoughts on the course and we'll take some questions.
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, played it last Thursday, or the Thursday before that, and I found it quite green. I'll play it this afternoon. I'm playing 18 holes with Lee Westwood, and we'll check it out then. But I'm sure it hasn't changed too much.
The greens are probably a little bit faster and more firm, but we'll check it out. I think it's a wonderful golf course. The rough is up, so you're going to have to hit problem shots. It's like every major; you know, they toughen it up a little bit more than any other tournament.
But the course itself, it's not too long. But as you can see, the wind is blowing out there. So that's going to be a big factor this week. A lot of doglegs on the course. You've got to position your tee shots, and really your second shots are really going to be the scoring club this week. Other than that, you know, it's just pure links, links bunkers and the rolling dunes. So it's a very testing layout.

Q. Could I ask you about South African golf? There are 12 South Africans in the field this week. What does that say about South African golf?
ERNIE ELS: Well, I think it's in a healthy state. I went through the draw yesterday looking at the tee times and the players, and you're right. I counted 13 (laughter) South African players. I don't know of any other country the size of South Africa with so many really good players coming through, you know.
Obviously Trevor winning a major this year, he's in his 20s, there's other younger players like him that's come through, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, I don't know if he's playing this week but those guys are coming through. Hennie Otto, he's won on the European Tour this year, then you've got Rory, myself and Retief, the older guys. But it just shows you, the programmes that we have back home are working, from junior golf, from the roots, is working. Amateur golf is in a healthy state, and it's really showing now.

Q. I don't know what kind of wind was here when you did play, but there's been a lot of talk about the 17th. I wonder if you could comment on that. But also the 16th, which today is into a pretty good wind, and there's a new tee that's been built and it looks like a pretty healthy hole.
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, today it will be. When I played here two weeks ago, there wasn't a lot of breeze. 16 was a driver and I think a 7- or 8-iron. Today, I mean, you're going to be struggling just to get it to the fairway. They've moved that tee back a lot. They've moved quite a few tees around since I was here last time, ten years ago.
The 3rd hole is a bit longer. They moved that tee back today. If the wind is down it won't be that big of a factor. 13 is back, 15 is a little bit back, 17 they've moved back with a new green. Yeah, they had to do it. With technology moving on in the last ten years, they've had to move some tees around and they've done that.
The 17th green is a little different than the rest of the course, a bit more severe in the mounding in the green, so that's different. But other than that, it's a very fair golf course. It's right in front of me, and it looks like we're going to have tough weather conditions this week. You're going to have to play really well to break par.

Q. You've always been good friends with young Sergio. Where do you think he's at? Just talk about your views on him and how he's developed and what he had to take with two Open losses.
ERNIE ELS: Well, first of all, I think his game is in a very good state at the moment, winning THE PLAYERS Championship. I feel that his putting has come on a long way. I think that's one of the reasons why he won this year. He's always been a very good ball-striker and obviously loves links conditions. You know, he's got a very good record. Of the young players he's got by far the best record in this championship. So I would really rate him this week.
He played well a couple weeks ago in Europe and has taken last week off, so I think he's in a pretty good state.
To his losses, yeah, last year -- I've been exactly where he was in 2004. Losing a playoff is very tough to take, but he's young, he's going to have lots more opportunities, and I think he's got a good one this week.

Q. And can you say why you and he have always hit it off so well?
ERNIE ELS: Well, ever since '99 when he finished second to Tiger at the PGA, I played a practise round with him the next week, and at that time we were sponsored by the same company so we did a lot of stuff together, commercials and golf days and stuff like that. So we spent quite a bit of time together.
He bought my house at Lake Nona, which makes him a very good friend of mine (laughter). I gave him a very good deal, by the way (laughter). I've spent a lot of time with his family, with his mom and dad and Carlos, his manager. You could say we're pretty good friends.
We don't spend too much time together right now. We play a bit of different schedules. But we just hit it off. I like his energy, young guy, brings a bit of energy.

Q. You've had a great deal of experience playing in Britain and Europe. With the weather conditions we're likely to get this week, do you think that gives you a good advantage?
ERNIE ELS: Well, yeah, I think in many ways it will be a survival test in some ways. I remember '98 was kind of like that. If you got on the wrong end of the draw, you were in trouble. I didn't have a great championship that year, but I do feel that I was on the tough side of the draw, and it showed in my scores.
And I think this week is going to be very similar. I've just been watching on BBC and Sky trying to figure out what the weather is going to do, and you just hope and pray that you're going to get the best of it, and hopefully it works out that way. But yeah, if you can get four or five hours of play where you feel you can get lucky with the weather, you've got to take your break.
That's one of the big things at the Open, is the luck of the draw sometimes, especially the first couple of rounds before all the leaders start playing together over the weekend. We'll wait and see, but it's going to be tough this week.

Q. But it might suit you if the weather is not very good?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I've played in all kinds of weather conditions. I played this tournament the first time in '89, and then since '92 I've played every year. So I've seen it in all kinds of conditions, all kinds of golf courses. So I'd like to think that experience might help. I mean, you've still got to hit the golf ball, whether you're 22 or 38. You've got to hit the golf ball. But leaving yourself shots where you can score from is very important. I think experience might help.

Q. What's more important when the weather is bad, mental or physical?
ERNIE ELS: Well, a bit of both, but very much a mental exercise. You've got to be very patient. You've got to feel like -- a lot of guys are going to make mistakes, you're going to make mistakes yourself and you've got to rebound from that. But also physical; you know, I feel you've got to be a strong ball-striker to play in tough weather conditions. You've got to hit the ball solidly.

Q. You said earlier that the second shot was your scoring shots, your scoring clubs. Could you explain that a little more? Is it just at this links or this major or what?
ERNIE ELS: As I said, there's a lot of doglegs, so even the longer hitters, you want to put it in a certain area. This golf course is so well bunkered in the fairways that, first of all, you've got to stay out of the fairway bunkers and that means you might leave yourself a longer second shot where you're safe in the fairway. You can take some risk, but if it doesn't come off, you're in trouble. You're going to be playing with 3-woods or 2-irons into certain spots. The whole field is going to hit it into those same areas. I mean, the second shots, if you're really on on your iron play, I think you can separate yourself there a little bit.

Q. A new course opened in your name a couple months ago in Dubai. Can you give us progress reports on the success or otherwise of it, and what do you think of the area generally as a developing hot bed for golf?
ERNIE ELS: Well, yeah, the reports of it, guys enjoy it. Obviously the back tees are quite long. I think it's 7,500 yards from the back tees. We've had quite a lot of play there, and the housing aspect of the whole development is going quite well. But that's the whole region. There's a lot of golf courses in the next two years that's going to open by quite big brand names, Tiger and Vijay and Greg Norman, Sergio, Pete Dye. I mean, these golf courses are all coming, so it's a part of the whole big picture there of the tourism.
Obviously golf and living around a golf course is quite attractive in that part of the world, and they're growing that very quickly. Dubai is the leading market in that region, and I think a lot of people will bolt from what Dubai has done.

Q. Do you think it's over-saturated, actually?
ERNIE ELS: Well, they've gone pretty aggressively. I'm sure if you're from there or you live there, yeah, they've got a big market that they're pursuing and they're going according to those plans. So far it's worked.

Q. Going back to the second shots, do you still do your old trick of studying a course from greens back to tees?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, especially this week, absolutely. You've got to almost track back. As I say, the second shots are so important. The first hole, depending on the breeze, might just be a 3-wood. If you want to be aggressive, hit it over the left side of the mound. But where the flag position is on the green, that's where you want to position yourself on the left side. If it's far right -- if the flag is on the left, it's so well bunkered around the greens, so you definitely play back from the green to give yourself a better option.

Q. With Tiger not here this week, as a major champion yourself, what are your thoughts, and also, what do you think that means for the psyche of some of the lesser experienced players who haven't won and are maybe more intimidated than someone like yourself?
ERNIE ELS: Well, first of all, Tiger, he's definitely, as we speak, focusing on rehabbing his knee. He's got a long road ahead of him. He's got a tough couple of months ahead of him. A guy as active as Tiger, to be stationary right now will not be a lot of fun, I know that.
But he's in great shape, and he'll come back when he's ready. I came back a little bit early. I was a little bit stubborn. I had a date in mind set in December that I wanted to get back, and I did that maybe a little bit early.
But I'm sure Tiger will only come back maybe a month before The Masters.
But for this week, I'm not overly disappointed that he's not here (laughter) as a player. For the tournament itself, it's a big blow. And for world golf, not to have the No. 1 player playing, and especially he won the U.S. Open, that was amazing, we're definitely going to miss him. But as a player, like a lot of other players, it feels very different, to be honest. It's the first major I think he's missed since he started playing as a pro, 11, 12 years ago. It's kind of a generation almost in a way, the best player in the world playing in every major, now he's not here. It's different. It's very different.

Q. Can you elaborate on that?
ERNIE ELS: Well, you guys are writing up different stories now, so that's something new (laughing). You've got to really work at it now (laughter). You know, I think you've got to talk about a lot more other players. You've got to talk about the Sergios. You talk about 30, 40 players now that have a chance. I think he's so far ahead in the race, we've kind of sagged back a little bit. Phil still is the true No. 2 in the world. But the race, there's quite a lot of players in the mix to really stake a claim to be a favourite.
It's an interesting championship. I think it's very exciting. For once I think everybody can be very excited.

Q. In the same theme, do you think players choke when Tiger plays?
ERNIE ELS: Well, choke is a very strong word in golf, but I think the thought of him around is quite ominous, especially coming down the stretch or even preparing yourself for a last round when he's in the mix. You've got your worries, not that other players aren't to worry, but you know this guy, he's going to be in contention at the end of the day. Yeah, there's definitely a thought of him in your mind all the time, yeah.

Q. As a quick follow-up on that, Sergio mentioned whether he's here or not doesn't make it any easier. I wonder if you could speak to that from your experience at Troon and frankly at Muirfield?
ERNIE ELS: Yeah. He's going to have an off week every now and then. He's won the Open three times, but if there's a soft major, it's probably this one. Last year he wasn't in contention and quite a few years he hasn't been quite up to his standard in majors. So yeah, this is probably one of the -- I call it the soft major, although he's won it three times. I think players like Sergio, like myself, I feel very comfortable in this event more than any other one. It's just because of the style of play, the style of the golf courses, the layouts, and I've played it since I was a teenager. I feel if any major, I'm on a much better level with Tiger in this kind of environment than say at the U.S. Masters or the PGA and so on and so forth.
And this is in Europe. Let's face it, Sergio is very much a factor over here. He feels very comfortable here. This tournament, for a lot of guys you feel like you can take on a guy like Tiger on a much more level playing field.

Q. But a couple of the times when you were there, in '04 at Troon and '02, and Tiger wasn't anywhere around, it was still hard work.
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, I lost to Todd Hamilton in a playoff, and Sergio lost to Padraig Harrington and so forth.

Q. And Thomas Levet, too.
ERNIE ELS: Yeah, and Thomas Levet was there. Golf, anyone can win. That's why I'm saying this week is such an exciting week. You're talking about a lot of players. Graeme McDowell, for instance, could win this week. He won last week. You're talking about a lot of players could break through this week.

Q. What's the locker room been like this week without Tiger?
ERNIE ELS: I haven't been in there much this week, and I never see Tiger in the locker room, either. To answer your question, I really haven't had time to speak to a lot of the guys this week or get their reaction, but --

Q. He's a sort of presence, isn't he, when he comes into the locker room? Presumably people are aware of him, and none of you is having to cope with that.
ERNIE ELS: That doesn't bother me. I don't think he's going to scare me away from the locker room or anything like that (laughter).

Q. Is Tiger's absence going to change your mindset at all on the course, how you approach your game or anything like that?
ERNIE ELS: No, no. I'll be concentrating on the same shots, same execution, same game plan. It's just he's not here this week, and hopefully my score is better than any other guy's score. No, I will not change anything. I think I've got a pretty good game plan that I want to follow, and I'll set out to do that and hopefully that works out.

Q. How did you react to the news that he was going to be out for a while, because obviously he's been a thorn in your side over the years?
ERNIE ELS: Well, you don't want to see a guy hurt like that, you know? I had that injury, and it's not a lot of fun. There's a lot of work left for him to do, and you never want to see somebody get hurt that badly.
But it is what it is, and he's going to do what he has to do to recover, and it will take time. And in the meantime, golf is rolling along without him, unfortunately.
I think, like I said to the other guys, I think it's an opportunity for a lot of guys. You know, I'm one of them. So let's see what happens and wait for him to come back, probably at the U.S. Masters.
BERNIE McGUIRE: Thanks for joining us. We all wish you well this week.

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